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A CurtainUp Review
Children of a Lesser God

By Elyse Sommer

You don't fool us. You think learning to sign means you can communicate with us, that because you want to change us we want to be changed. --- Orin, the militant student (who can sign to to James, his non hearing impaired teacher.

Alexandria Wailes & Jeffrey Denman
Alexandria Wailes & Jeffrey Denman
(Photo: Theresa Squire)
Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God was one of the dramatic highlights of the 1980 theater season. It nabbed Tonys for Best play as well as Best Actor (Jon Rubinstein ) and Best Actress (Phyllis Frelich ) and ran for 887 performances. In 1987 the play was made into a movie with John Hurt and Marlee Matlin. The film was also very successful, with Matlin, a newcomer to films, winning an Oscar.

The play's success stemmed from the fact that it depicted the world of the deaf in very human and dynamic terms. Medoff''s advocacy for a better understanding of what it was like to live in a silent world and dealing with the hearing world's perception of deafness was also a powerful love story filled with equal parts of humor, hope and despair.

There have been other Medoff plays featuring deaf characters to be played by hearing impaired actors, but none have had the impact of Children of a Lesser God. The most recent, Prymate, despite bringing Phyllis Frelich back to Broadway as an anthropologist, was a major misfire that closed after just a couple of weeks. Children of a Lesser God, its award winning stage and film life notwithstanding, has never had a New York revival, which may have contributed to its aura as Medoff's masterpiece. Thus the Keen Company is to be commended for canceling out the Prymate fiasco by giving people a chance to see the earlier and more successful play.

If the story feels somewhat dated it's for positive reasons. The deaf have made great strides in having their own language accepted as a valid means of communication, with everyone who rides a plane and watching the instructions for emergency situations familiar with sign language. The DeafWest Theatre has enjoyed enormous success, as have Signed Performances of popular plays. The legal battle for teaching sign language and hiring hearing impaired teachers that constituted the subplot has been won.

But the struggles of any minority group are always worth revisiting as is the dream that love can bridge seemingly insurmountable differences -- the bridge builders in this case being the deaf from birth Sarah and her teacher James who can hear but brings his own baggage to the relationship. That said, this revival, though still occasionally powerful, doesn't have the punch to the heart one expects. For that to happen, it would need this teacher student love affair to come across with more fire.

Jeffry Denman is sincere and charming as James Leeds and the hearing impaired Alexandria Wailes' hands convey the emotion and elegance possible when speaking in sign language. However, her portrayal of the angry, bright young woman is less nuanced. The couple's sexual attraction seems more bland than passionate. As for the personal demons that have propelled Leeds into his do-good life style, they also come across as underplayed.

The story is structured as a memory play with all the action taking place inside the mind of James Leeds. Consequently the playwright specified that the stage should be kept bare except for a few benches and a blackboard so that the characters could appear and disappear easily. While Nathan Heverin's multi-level set quite elegantly adheres to this, director Blake Lawrence has done little to take advantage of it, failing to move the actors on and off with the called for fluidity. Besides Denman and Wailes, the characters appearing and disappearing include two hard-of hearing students at the deaf school where the story unfolds -- deaf rights advocate Orin (Guthrie Nutter) and Lydia (Tami Lee Santimyer) who has a crush on James. There's also Mr. Franklin (Ian Blackman), a school administrator whose main interest is his bridge game; Sarah's mother (Lee Roy Rogers) and Edna Klein (Makela Spielman), in the cameo role of a minority rights lawyer.

Even with the shortcomings of the direction and performances, you can't help being moved by the final confrontation between Sarah and James which ends with her actually speaking for one moment. That scene provides a glimpse of what this production might have been.

Playwright: Mark Medoff
Directed by
Cast (in order of appearance): Alexandria Wailes (Sarah Norman), Jeffrey Denman (James Leeds), Guthrie Nutter (Orin Dennis), Ian Blackman (Mr. Franklin, Lee Roy Rogers (Mrs. Norman, Tami Lee Santimyer (Lydia), Makela Spielman (Edna Klein)
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Matthew Given
ASL Translation & coach: Jackie Roth
Running time: 2 hours, plus a 15-minute intermission
Keen Company at Connelly Theater 220 East 4th St SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 3/14/06 to 4/09/06; opening 3/18/06
Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM
Running Time: 2 hrs with an intermission.
Tickets: $19 -- general seating

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 16th press performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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